London-based electronic musician Ross Downes’s latest album for Trestle Records, Stacked Up At Zero, is a deeply personal journey through a difficult year, containing twelve short tracks freighted with a fragility, sparseness, and heavily emotional gestures.
Here, rhythms are clipped, pared back to the barest impulses; sounds emerge into a void, where their slowly-decaying textures and ensuing silences are as powerful as the sounds themselves; occasional bursts of carefully-sculpted noise or a deeply resonant drone slice through the tension creating an unanticipated tension and uncertainty, like unwelcome negative thoughts arriving in the forefront of your consciousness.
Tracks like ‘Recovery’ feel like dream-like trips on a stretcher through the clinical whiteness of a hospital, as seen through eyes that are barely open, while ‘An Island Hijacked’ has a gauzy, maudlin outlook framed by murky pads and randomised sounds that could be sonic approximations of gunfire; here we find threat and danger, sidestepping some of the questing, unresolved qualities to be found in haunting pieces like ‘Face To Face To Face’ or opening track ‘The Kind Animal’.
One of the most rhythmically complex pieces here is ‘Extincting’, which commences with what sounds like shamisen melodies offset by gently swaying synth passages. There is an overwhelming, latent grandeur to this piece, like trying to contemplate the horrifying vastness of the universe on a clear night.
This is just one of the sonic parlour tricks that Downes deploys across Stacked Up At Zero, all of which have the effect of sending your mind racing into fantastically visceral spaces: on ‘A Day Without’ we hear pretty, delicate tones crested with an icy sensitivity that then open out onto a murky, barren landscape of throbbing bass and harrowing noises that sound like robotic creatures burrowing for food in a circuit board desert; on ‘Waking Pareidolia’ we hear a buried pulse and bassy motifs, together creating a platform for cycles of plaintive pads and a heavy mood redolent of eighties movie soundtracks and all their associated fear, mystery and purpose.
What Ross Downes was working through while making this album is necessarily personal; his catharsis, however, has produced a fantastically complex record, full of arresting detail and evocative atmospherics that are utterly universal.
Stacked Up At Zero by Ross Downes is released May 1 2020 by Trestle Records.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Further.